“Whole child development is so important because a child is absorbing the world around them, learning the complexities around them, and that world can be different depending on how we engage the child,” says Lester Stephens, Head of International School Saigon Pearl (ISSP).
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Parents and teachers can easily track and respond to a student’s academic progress and monitor their social skills alongside their emotional health, but how does one ensure a child’s entire, holistic development? Lester explains that thinking about the type of people one hopes students become helps set the mind frame for whole child development. At ISSP, this means looking to the International Baccalaureate learner profile attributes that seek to mentor students who are inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective. A variety of habits and priorities helps one work towards those goals.
Certainties and limits give students “a certainty their world is safe, has a shape and then they learn to explore” it, which is essential for growth, Lester says. This philosophy is exemplified by the school’s physical education program. Students know the rules and structure, but are also encouraged to take ownership of their time, behavior and interactions within those boundaries. Encouragement-based feedback and honest praise help students develop healthy relationships with the rules.
To motivate students to take risks, be mindful of others, and have principles, ISSP focuses on a concept of fairness that avoids blame but looks to turn mistakes into learning experiences. “Life is not fair, but at least there is a perception or an awareness that we are trying to be fair,” Lester says before providing an anecdote from a school he previously worked at: A student had brought a lighter to school to give to a staff member who frequently lit incense. This was against the school rules, but rather than scold or punish the student, he was given a lesson on fire safety to explain the rules and then tasked with teaching his peers about the importance of responsible fire care.
Reflecting on one’s feelings to identify what one is experiencing, why, and what healthy responses might be appropriate is critical for emotional maturity. Teachers at ISSP thus guide students through a calm and reasoned assessment of what they are feeling. This activity works because of the relationships between teachers and students. The staff greets all students when they arrive and the warm, enthusiastic atmosphere continues in the classrooms. Doing this gives pupils “a sense of belonging and being connected” which lets them flourish in all pursuits, according to Lester.
A balanced school and home life is essential for growth in all aspects of a student’s life. This means a variety of activities, learning methods, and opportunities to work with peers while at ISSP. Lester also stresses the need for parents’ support to monitor students when using electronics and help arrange opportunities for increasingly complex social interactions.
Not everything that needs to be learned can be found in a book. ISSP develops globally-minded students who are committed to enriching the world around them. A perfect example of how they achieve this is a partnership with Cát Tiên National Park. Grade three students learn traditional methods to plant rice, grade four students tend the rice, and grade five students harvest it. Each step is assisted by local members of two ethnic minority groups, and students are given the freedom to decide what to do with the rice when it has been collected. Last year, students opted to donate 90 of the 100 kilograms they harvested to Friends for Street Children, one of the local charities ISSP works with.
ISSP often uses the phrase: “Be the best at getting better.” This idea rests at the core of whole child development because learning and improvement never end and parents and teachers should constantly be working to ensure students are improving in all areas of their development. There is no single definition for whole child development, but Lester notes it involves “Balance, physically and emotionally; being able to sing and be creative; have a great social life, but also work hard in the classroom, or be a good child and grandchild.”